thinking: “oh, look honey, another box store.”
Thunder Bay’s Intercity area is a commercial developer’s (and realtor’s) wet dream: dozens of flat, undeveloped acres sandwiched between two car-dependent city-regions. You couldn’t make that up. Naturally, this is where the box retailers are making their inevitable home.
For some, this development has been cause for concern, specifically as an economic (and social) drain on the downtown cores of Port Arthur and Fort William. We can’t really comment on that; we’re not economists. Our concern is more centered on how these buildings are so consciously removed from the cultural landscape of the region.
Box store and mall architecture is fascinating. Immense, windowless, hollow structures whose sole purpose is to house goods for resale in high volumes as efficiently as possible. That’s it, really – there isn’t a single other thing for which these steel caves are intended or even conducive. Not community, not culture, not development – just short-term commerce. And that’s great, since commerce means jobs and taxes, which means people can eat and then have the waste taken away. Life is good.
The other fascinating feature of these large-scale commercial structures is their facade design. When considered, they’re really very clever; they have to be appealing to the greatest number of people possible across the greatest number of communities in the greatest number of possible contexts, while maintaining something of the retailer’s brand. They have to be utterly, completely, even tyrannically ‘normal’. They have to situate nowhere in order to fit in everywhere. Designing a storefront for your standard big box retailer would have to amount to the most difficult project a designer would ever have.
a failure to communicate
A design process is best led by a definition of goals, usually communicative ones. Whether through something as direct and temporary as an advertisement or as expressive and deep as an identity, the client always wants to communicate something specific to someone specific. That defined goal fuels a designer’s process – without it, design is toothless and meaningless. It comes from nowhere, and goes nowhere. It amounts to mere doodling; perhaps pretty doodling, but still doodling.
In a manner of thinking, the designer for a box retailer’s exterior has a specific goal: communicate as little as possible to as many people as possible. In another manner of thinking, that goal is not a goal at all, but rather a non-goal – if that makes sense – the avoidance of anything directive. Forgetting for the moment that not communicating something is impossible, a box retailer designer must actively steer clear of any contextual references, while still making it somewhat ‘attractive’. The result is more often than not flat, neutral surfaces punctuated by a peak here or there and topped with, predictably, crown molding. The result is a mishmash of visual cues that successfully say very little of anything to just about anyone.
The net effect is a massive, characterless embodiment of consumerism hogging the visual landscape, and a persistent accusation that our priorities as a community have been reduced to simply buying lots of stuff at low prices.
breaking the box
It doesn’t have to be this way, of course. Many (if not most) communities now require big box retailers to adhere to a set of architectural and landscaping guidelines to protect the cultural character of the place, and to limit the often undesirable consequences of big box developments – vast parking lots, traffic congestion, urban and automotive sprawl, etc.
But such things need not be regulated. The businesses themselves could take a more sensitive and even adventurous approach on their own accord. Even decades ago, the big box retailer presence – and its role in the community – was a matter of question, a question that was approached by at least one chain. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, BEST hired architect James Wines’ SITE to design nine stores that challenged the role of art in retail spaces, and was “a way of asking questions and changing public response to the significance of commercial buildings in the suburban environment.” (More pictures here.)
making our own box
What should a box store for Thunder Bay look like? How should it be visually and culturally accountable to our community? These are questions that should be asked if we are serious about protecting and enabling the things that really matter to a community.
There is also the question of what to do with these architectural monstrosities once they’re abandoned. After all, they were built with one purpose in mind, and that purpose will expire at some point (to wit, Walmart has its own realty division to handle its current and former properties). Many enterprising folks have already been answering that question with ingenuity.
Last year, magazines inhabitat and dwell co-sponsored a competition called ReBurbia, in which competitors were asked to envision the future of the suburban landscape, especially abandoned big box stores and McMansions. The results yielded some clever solutions for that future, and even some thoughtful solutions for the present.
So, there are options. Our task as a community is to have the courage to take ownership of our visual landscape, and then have an equal amount of courage to allow communities to develop naturally as these retail spaces inevitably burn out.
In the mean time, there are other ways to comment on the totalizing effect of big box retailers on consumer habits and choice. Enjoy: